Why do people write news stories against their own interests?

by Andrew Gelman on February 4, 2010 · 3 comments

in Political Theory

Matt Stephenson points me to this BBC article, “Why do people vote against their own interests?”, that was full of the usual errors. This would seem to fall into the dog-bites-man category of “This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet”—but it is the fabled BBC, and it is written by a political scientist at fabled Cambridge University—so maybe it’s going through some problems.

It is striking [says David Runciman, speaking on the BBC] that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.

B-b-b-but . . . what about this?


The people who dislike healthcare are primarily those over 65 (who already have free medical care in America) and people with above-average income. No, these are not really the ones the new bill is most designed to help.

To be fair, though, my maps are based on survey data from 2004. I haven’t been able to grab more recent individual-level data to replicate our analysis with current public opinion. Still, my guess is that it is the older and richer who most strongly oppose changing the health-care system.


If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them. They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best. There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

Hey, I didn’t know that! Maybe it’s true. I thought that in a relatively peaceful and prosperous country such as the United States, there’s nothing voters hate more than an economic downturn.

Beyond this, there’s little evidence that people vote based on their individual interest or even that they should vote based on their interest; rather, survey data and theory both suggest that people vote based on what they think is best for the country. (See here and here.) This is not to say that the psychological models of Drew Westen, which are touched upon in this article, are wrong or irrelevant, but merely to point out that “people voting against their interests” is not such a surprise or paradox.

And then there’s this:

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Huh? From the 2008 election:


Republicans did better among upper-income voters—except possibly for the over-200,000’s. (The highest income category from the Pew surveys is “$150,000+”, so we can’t do a direct comparison at the top.)

Damn! Another beautiful theory crushed by the facts.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that the curve should be steeper—that the lowest-income voters should be voting even more for the Democrats, but, y’know, some low-income voters have conservative views on economic issues. More to the point, perhaps, upper-income Americans vote 10-20% more Republican than lower-income Americans, and this difference has been pretty stable since 1940 (with a brief interlude during the moderate presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy):


Also, as John Huber and Piero Stanig have discussed, rich and poor vote more differently in the United States than in most European countries. So, either on an absolute or a relative level, I don’t see how the argument in this BBC article stands up.

How did this happen?

As an American, I have what is I’m sure a naive view of the BBC as the ultimate in quality broadcasting, so I’m more disturbed by the above-linked article than I would be by a comparable think-piece on a U.S. media outlet.

There’s still something that’s buggin me here, though, beyond the whole BBC thing.

I can see how a reporter could get confused about this whole rich-voter, poor voter thing—in fact, we devoted chapter 3 of Red State, Blue State to an exploration of how this could happen. And I could see how the author of this article, David Runciman, could have a view of U.S. politics that differs from mine. After all, What’s the Matter with Kansas (which in its British edition was called What’s the Matter with America, to really drive the point home) has probably outsold Red State, Blue State by a factor of 200 or so.

B-b-b-but . . . David Runciman is not just some TV talking head. He teaches political science at Cambridge University! I’m sure he’s too busy to read up on the American Politics literature, but doesn’t he have some colleagues down the hall whom he could talk with about this stuff?

P.S. We last encountered Runciman when he described a primary election campaign with the unforgettable phrase, “But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable.” He also described a survey of 283 people as “throwing darts at a board.” Which of course made me wonder (along the lines of “Why don’t the just sell hotcakes?”) why they don’t just throw darts at a board, then? This would save them lots of money!

P.P.S. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Runciman is a bad guy. My guess is that he just didn’t know any better. He read Thomas Frank’s book and it seemed convincing, he doesn’t keep up with scholarly debates on U.S. political science, so he didn’t know where to look. As Mark Twain said, it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

P.P.P.S. No, I don’t think that Thomas Franks’ work is empty of content. Yes, I do think that the differences between right-wing and left-wing populism are worthy of study. Yes, I do think it’s a good idea to try to understand what happened so that health care reform, which was formerly supported by a solid majority of Americans, is no longer so popular. But I don’t think this discussion is well served by sloppy statements that are contradicted by the data. As I wrote immediately above, I’m sure Runciman and the BBC would be more accurate, if only they knew that more accurate knowledge was out there. That’s one reason we wrote Red State, Blue State: in addition to presenting new research and (our idea of) a synthesis, we wanted to communicate to journalists and even English political theorists that U.S. politics isn’t quite as they might suppose.

P.P.P.P.S. I apologize for using the expression “B-b-b-but” twice in one blog entry. Usually I try to space out my sputterings a bit more, but it just seemed appropriate here. When ya gotta sputter, ya gotta sputter.


Naadir Jeewa February 4, 2010 at 4:52 pm

The internet has been righted.

BBC lost its claim to the ultimate in quality to AlJazeera, who stole its best employees in return for higher wages in the sun.

Although, the BBC still produces gems like this.

Justin Thomson February 10, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Hi, is it possible to comment on older blog posts?

Regarding the US, it’s understandable to me (after reading some of Jean-Paul Gagnon’s work on democracy) that the US needs to work on its definition of equality. The population seems quite fragmented and I think that people voting against healthcare in the interest of the ‘country’ do not have the required understanding of political science to make these decisions. I would not be surprised if empirical research showed that those opposed to the healthcare plan are acting mostly out of fear. Who doesn’t want to help give people a better quality of life? I suggest people read Gagnon’s more recent stuff, my professor swears by it.

Minda February 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

the BBC article is full of incorrect statements. The writer assumes that the health care bill is a good bill that will do what the democrats promise. Alot of americans don’t agree with that. After all if someone promises me the best health care imaginable with no restrictions for less money, I would be crazy to deny that. But that is not what the bill is promising. It is promising less treatment for higher taxes. That at least is the belief of the population and democrats do not correct the belief because they can’t. They can only lie so much. The bill(s) (there are several floating around) speaks for itself.

People don’t vote against their own interests. In the first place, Americans don’t think that our neighbors should be taxed and their money given to us. That is wrong, it is harmful to the country, and besides we might be the ones from whom something is taken. If I have a house with three bedrooms, I don’t want it taken and given to someone else because a bureaucrat decides I don’t “deserve” the house. And I don’t want someone elses house. This basic fact is what drives liberals crazy. They try to convince us that we should be driven by envy and want to rob our neighbor. But we don’t, at least not yet. And it will be me or my neighbor who is robbed. I see quite clearly that the rich, whether left or right, will never lose anything. Let them keep their stuff. But leave me alone.

But it is not just money. Why is it in my interest, for instance, to have the kind of system that is prosecuting Geert Wilders? Red states and blue states have different feelings about national identity, religion, culture and many other things. From the red viewpoint, it is the blues that are acting against their interests. It is the blues that are destroying the whole mass prosperity liberal democracy thing.

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